Corruption: It’s Just Unattractive

In early January, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund decided to divest its entire stake — approximately $11.37 million — in the Chinese company ZTE because the company is facing corruption allegations in 18 countries, 11 of which have launched formal investigations.

The move by the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund followed an assessment by the Council of Ethics, the body that advises oil-rich Norway’s central bank on investments. “The Council has concluded that the company has failed to demonstrate satisfactorily that internal anticorruption procedures are being effectively implemented,” a statement said. “There is an unacceptable risk that the company may once again become involved in gross corruption.”

This is not the first time that the fund has decided to shed shares in a company deemed too risky based on indicators ranging from poor corporate governance to human rights issues and environmental damage. In fact, more than 60 companies have been blacklisted over the years by the fund.

Of course, the Norwegians are not the only nation with publicly accountable funds keeping an eye out for risky businesses. The New York City Employee’s Retirement System (NYCERS) conducts annual reports on labor practices in 25 emerging markets to assess risk in order to determine where to invest funds. By at least one measure, demand is increasing for additional indicators of risk. Bloomberg started offering Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) data on companies in addition to other financial indicators since 2007. In 2014, according to Bloomberg, there was a 76 percent increase from the previous year of customers using this data.

In a recent interview with CIPE, Dan Konigsburg, Managing Director of Deloitte’s Center for Corporate Governance, explains that thinking on stakeholders with a vested interest has changed since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) first released the OECD Principles of Corporate Governance. Wider sets of actors are now cognizant of the risks associated with corrupt companies and contexts.

At a recent presentation at CIPE, Charles Duross, former Deputy Chief in the Fraud Section in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, currently heading Morrison and Foerster’s global anti-corruption practice, related a story about the danger of engaging in corrupt practices. A company paid a bribe to be selected to undertake a government contract with the false assumption that once they were able to prove themselves they would earn their next contract on merit alone. Instead, the first bribe led the way to more and more extortion to the point where the company was barely eking out a profit. After a change in political leadership, the new government was not willing to honor the company’s selection for the contract, leaving them at a huge loss.

The takeaway? Corruption is just plain unattractive to investors. It is seen as an indicator of poor governance structures and a potentially volatile investment. But is often difficult for outsiders to detect. As Michael Bloomberg explains, “More and more customers seek access to this kind of information–wisely so–but it has not been easy to discover.” As demand for these indicators increases, investment funds continue to factor a wide range of measures — including indications of corrupt practices — in their investments decision.

Laura Van Voorhees is a Program Officer for Global Programs at CIPE.